Twenty years, four Tonys, a Pulitzer, a film, a cult following, innumerable national tours and regional and high school productions later, the musical that took Broadway by storm and opened up possibilities within the rock musical genre still has the power to move its audiences to laugh, cry, think and feel real empathy.
“Rent” is the beautiful and powerfully moving closing production for The Barn Theatre’s tremendous 71st season. The show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, who died at 35 of an aortic aneurysm the night of the last dress rehearsal before the Broadway opening in 1996, graced the Barn stage in 1980 and 1981. That very special connection to him and this semi-autobiographical work so clearly shows here in the elegant execution of every careful choice by the enormously talented cast and crew.
Loosely based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” through a series of scenes and musical vignettes, “Rent” follows a year of life on the edge for a creative group of impoverished bohemians in New York City’s East Village during the height of the AIDS crisis. There are breakups, near evictions, mad hustles for cash and for finding the next fix, and illness and death; but there is also new romance, joyful performance and celebrations, art and love making, sophisticated cultural critique, and an unstoppable spiritedness in the pursuit of dreams.
And this, ultimately, is the lasting impact of this group of friends and lovers against the inevitable obstacles life presents: they live in the moment, make the most of what they’ve got, and rage against the dying of the light by shining on in love. They may live on the margins, but in no way are they marginal. And in that, this motley crew of wildly beautiful characters represent and calm the parts of ourselves that live in fear.
Much as “Hair” will resonate most deeply for the flower children of the 1960s, “Rent” will undoubtedly do the same for the MTV generation and those who came of age during the devastating era in which AIDS was a death sentence. And though it in many ways has become a period piece, it’s the profound themes, gorgeous music and heartfelt characters that make “Rent” not only relevant, but still powerfully moving — particularly in this excellent production at The Barn, which offers some of the greatest performances of the entire season.
Director Brendan Ragotzy put together a terrific cast, drawing the best out of his Equity actors and giving a well-earned opportunity for the apprentices working toward their Equity cards to shine.
Nick Barkos is charming as Mark, the budding filmmaker and narrator of the show whose girlfriend has dumped him for another woman. Alex Crossland is lovely as a depressed yet yearning Roger, Mark’s roommate, the HIV-positive former junkie who longs to write one glorious song before he dies. His sweetness rings out in Crossland’s gorgeous voice. And he has wonderful chemistry with Rachel Mahar, who is a fantastic Mimi, the junkie exotic dancer next door. Their budding romance feels real, and Mahar sings beautifully, and slithers, writhes, slides, twirls, and spreads her legs in every possible way all over the fine multi-level, pole-laden, gritty-looking set by Samantha Snow in “Out Tonight.”
Jamey Grisham’s choreography throughout the show is exquisite (particularly the inventive above-the-waist dancing in the huge “La Vie Boheme” and the comedic “Tango Maureen” in addition to “Out Tonight”), as is his performance as Angel, the percussionist drag queen living as gracefully as s/he can with AIDS and creating merriment in her white platform go-go boots everywhere she goes. There’s a joyfulness in his performance reminiscent of Jack Lemmon in “Some Like it Hot.” Grisham is pure light in this role. It may be the best thing he’s ever done; you can’t take your eyes off him. His duets and harmonies with Byron Glenn Willis, who shows true tenderness as Angel’s sweetheart Tom Collins, are pure gold.
Also offering her finest performance to date is Samantha Rickard, who absolutely owns the stage as Maureen, the fiery woman who left Mark for a lesbian lawyer. She really rocks it with sexy, sassy, soulful flair, particularly in the delightfully comedic “Over the Moon,” and she creates beautiful harmonies with Courtney Bruce, who’s a fierce Joanne, in “Take Me or Leave Me.”
The 42 musical numbers are each a knockout in their own right, though at times the sound levels are off, making it difficult to distinguish voices and hear them over the excellent five-piece orchestra led onstage by Musical Director Matt Shabala. Hopefully this glitch will be worked out over the course of the run.
Other technical elements are superb, including the aforementioned set with lights that effect mood shifts by Mike McShane. Act II’s backlit sex/death scene done mostly in silhouette is especially creative and tasteful.
Also wildly creative are Michael Wilson Morgan’s delightfully varied and authentic Boho-chic period costumes, complete with plenty of plaid, leather and pleather, chains and studs, shimmer, color, and animal print — though the greatest of which undoubtedly is Angel’s super stylish shower curtain dress complete with Barbie doll belt.
Such fabulous little details abound in this show, and together with the brilliant, now classic, book, music and lyrics by beloved, long-mourned Barnie Jonathan Larson, the magnificently talented cast and crew offer a very special production of “Rent” that honors the depths of its true meaning and purpose: Love with a capital L.
Aug. 22-Sept. 3